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Squid-flation bites Japan as catch sinks to new low

Wholesale prices of the popular seafood have doubled over five years

Flying squid are the latest seafood scarcity to trouble fish-loving Japan. (Photo by Ami Yamada)

TOKYO -- Japan's catch of Pacific flying squid fell to a new all-time low in 2017, sending wholesale prices of the seafood to profit-squeezing highs for companies that process it into popular foods.

Often eaten as surume, a kind of fish jerky, flying squid is one of several kinds of seafood that have become scarce in recent years.

Last year's haul sank 15% to 53,000 tons, according to the JF Zengyoren national federation of fishing cooperatives. The squid catch has fallen by half in just two years. The previous low was plumbed in 2016.

Lighter catches have been blamed on changing sea temperatures, which impedes the spawning and growth of the squid. Critics have also pointed to overfishing by North Korean and Chinese fishing boats.

Wholesale prices of flying squid have climbed as a result. Last year's average price per kilogram came to 564 yen, a roughly 80% increase from two years earlier, according to JF Zengyoren.

Flying squid is often dried to make "surume," a squid jerky. (Photo by Tatsuya Inoue)

At Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, flying squid fetched around 950 yen during the first week of April. Although that price is about 20% lower than the comparable week last year, it is nearly 10% higher than in 2015 and 2016.

Besides being dried, flying squid is stuffed with rice to make ikameshi, and its innards are fermented into shiokara, a pungent topping for rice.

Rising wholesale prices are hitting squid processors in the wallet. Procurement costs for those companies have doubled in five years, said Hideki Tonami, director of the National Cooperative Association of Squid Processors, calling the business environment "the toughest it has ever been."

Natori, a Tokyo-based maker of squid products, has forecast a 46% drop in group net profit to 730 million yen ($6.79 million) for the year ended in March owing to the higher costs.

Flying squid is caught off of Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, as well as off the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Japan coasts. In Hokkaido and other areas, fishing operations are turning to other seafood to reduce their dependence on flying squid.

But salmon, saury and mackerel have also experienced shortages in recent years, leaving fewer alternatives for fishers. Some food companies that specialize in squid have moved to processing potatoes as a side business.

Japan's Fisheries Agency has responded by setting the quota of allowable catches for the year starting in April at 97,000 tons, down 30% from the previous year to the lowest ever. To ease the shortage, the agency is also permitting a 16% increase in flying squid imports, to 87,000 tons.

Still, the measures will not be able to cover a 50,000-ton decrease in the squid catch over two years, said Tonami. Fishing season begins in earnest in June, and import volumes may be lifted further depending on the catch.

There were about 140 Japanese squid boats plying the waters a decade ago, but that number has fallen by more than half. Last year, North Korean vessels advanced into the Yamato shallows, an important fishing area in the Sea of Japan. That activity crowded out Japanese boats. Chinese fishers are also increasing their catch by using large ships, industry insiders say.

"International management of fishing hauls is essential," said Kyoichi Kawaguchi, chairman of the Japan Squid Fisheries Association.

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